Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Regulatory capture" in Berkeley

Proposed project: 2211 Harold Way, Berkeley

Becky O'Malley has a message in her editorial on regulatory capture in the Berkeley Daily Planet from U.C. physicist James McFadden, an opponent of the Harold Way project. Sounds like the way meetings are conducted here in San Francisco:

Having spent many an evening over the last 9 months at City Council, ZAB, LPC, and School Board meetings, I'm finally starting to recognize ‘industry capture’ of both staff and the council/board/committee members. Although many people are quick to assume that capture means corruption, they really are different things. 

Capture is more of an aligning of economic world views, not necessarily to any monetary advantage, often just to make one's job easier or more pleasant in dealing with people on a day to day basis (perhaps like the Stockholm syndrome). It entails adapting views that parallel industry's views which are clearly shaped by profit motive. 

Captured individuals don't necessarily have an economic conflict of interest. They don't see their behavior as incorrect. They have forgotten that their role is to provide oversight and protection to the public on these public-private deals, and instead see their role as making sure the deal gets done. Their public meetings evolve into patronizing facades of democracy. 

Captured staff and government officials suffer from wishful blindness rather than corruption per se. For the most part, capture is about creating a pleasant working environment with those in industry who they deal with on a daily basis. It is a slow and insidious process that strikes at the heart of human psychology that allows us to work in groups. The more time you spend with someone, the more likely you are to mirror their behavior—especially when the industry hires shills who continually flatter staff and boards/committees. When we-the-public show up and complain, we become the opponent to be ignored. 

A telling sign of capture is an inability of staff to answer direct questions in a public forum, questions they should have answers for. This happened several times during the ZAB [Thursday] night. Staff instead must go outside and get the answers from industry—or just stonewall—or just present the industry talking points outside of public view. 

Capture also manifests in the actions of the members of boards/councils/committees who are supposed to provide oversight, but instead seem more concerned with time and process. They often spend their time praising staff or justifying their poor performance, or worse yet praising the industry over which they are supposed to provide oversight. I was particularly struck by [ZAB Chair Prakash] Pinto's behavior at [Thursday] night’s ZAB. 

The meeting becomes a dance of false empowerment where getting through the meeting on time is more important than focusing on important issues or input from the public.

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Opposition to the Idaho Stop

From Howard Chabner, who uses a wheelchair to get around:

Dear Mayor Lee, President Breed and Supervisors:

Please do not adopt the ordinance proposed by Supervisor Avalos to make citations for bicyclists who don't stop at stop signs the lowest law enforcement priority and to permit bicyclists not to stop at stop signs if the intersection is empty. Consider the following:

· The analysis, studies and factors from experienced pedestrian safety advocate and expert Bob Planthold, in his recent communications with you, are compelling reasons not to adopt this ordinance.

· In Supervisor Avalos’s press release of August 12, two things are proposed: 1- enforcement would be de-prioritized; and 2- the "San Francisco Right-of-Way Policy" would permit bicyclists to "slowly proceed without fully stopping at stop signs if the intersection is empty." With regard to #2, it has long been California law that bicyclists are subject to traffic laws applicable to other vehicles, including the requirement to stop at stop signs. Changing this should not be done through the back door of a local policy ordinance, especially one that may be introduced hastily and without complete analysis and debate. (How many San Franciscans are even aware of this proposed ordinance?) If you believe that the law should be changed, find a sponsor in the state legislature and engage in a full, statewide debate about such a major change. Moreover, purporting to exempt San Francisco from state law by means of a "policy" ordinance may well be illegal.

· The proposed ordinance would deprioritize failure to stop by cyclists who, in the words of Supervisor Avalos’s press release, "safely yield at stop signs." Whether or not a cyclist’s failure to stop constitutes safe yielding is extremely subjective. Also subjective is whether the intersection is empty. For example, if a pedestrian is at the curb just getting ready to lift their leg onto the street, is the intersection empty? (This gets to Bob Planthold's points about poor visibility, fast-moving bicyclists, etc.) In practice these subjective rules would mean that the police department would err on the side of non-enforcement even if the failure to stop was not safe or the intersection was not completely empty, for fear of being criticized by the Board of Supervisors and the powerful SF bike lobby. This in turn would encourage unsafe behavior by cyclists.

· People with mobility disabilities, blind people, seniors, and people with baby strollers would feel less safe. This is difficult to quantify, but it is real. I've used a wheelchair since 1990, and before that I walked for many years with increasing difficulty, and decreasing speed and confidence. Falling became an increasing problem, as it is for many people who walk with difficulty. In recent years I've had several near misses from bicyclists who have run red lights, run stop signs and ridden on the sidewalk. From time to time when I am crossing at a crosswalk where there is a stop sign and a motor vehicle is stopped, a cyclist has blown past the stop sign. I wasn't able to see the cyclist until I've been past the motor vehicle. This is stressful and unsafe. Knowing that cyclists wouldn't be required to stop at stop signs, and that the police would be under great pressure not to issue citations, would make this even worse. My feeling of safety as a pedestrian would significantly decline. In my experience (among other things, for five years I was Chair of the Physical Access Committee of the Mayor's Disability Council), many others feel the same way. 

· Many times cyclists going fast have come close to me and other pedestrians. The cyclist may sincerely believe they are far enough to be safe, and they may avoid hitting the pedestrian by turning or swerving at the last moment. While I might not classify these situations as full near misses, still, as a pedestrian, this is unnerving. To add subjectivity to the law would increase these situations.

· Supervisor Avalos’s press release states that strict enforcement is counterproductive because it discourages people from bicycling. First, no evidence is cited for this proposition. Second, if it is true, what it means is that some people don't want to bicycle unless they are exempt from stopping at stop signs. In other words, they want special treatment.

· Supervisor Avalos’s press release also states that strict enforcement is "counterintuitive to the way most bicyclists and drivers currently navigate intersections." As above, no evidence whatsoever is cited for this proposition. But to the extent that it accurately describes the way drivers currently navigate intersections, it is most likely not because San Francisco drivers believe that cyclists should be exempt from stopping at stop signs, but because San Francisco drivers have become so used to dangerous, illegal, unpredictable, aggressive and unpunished behavior by cyclists that they are always on the lookout for cyclists coming from any direction, fast, weaving in and out, and violating traffic laws generally.

· Drivers who aren't from San Francisco would not expect that bicyclists are permitted not to stop at the stop sign. This is another reason why the law should be uniform and consistent throughout California.

· Idaho adopted the "Idaho stop" law in 1982. There is a good reason why none of the other 49 states have adopted this law in the subsequent 33 years. It's also important to consider that Boise is much less dense than San Francisco and is not comparable in other ways.

Please oppose this ordinance that would diminish pedestrian safety and give cyclists special treatment. Thank you for considering this email.

Howard Chabner

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